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Journalism's Gender Problem Just Got Worse With Jill Abramson's Firing

The wage gap is still wide, and women are penalized when they ask for more

Nelson Barnard/Getty Images for the New York Times

The news of Jill Abramson's ouster from the New York Times—and subsequent unconfirmed reports that she'd been paid less than her male predecessor—are likely to mean we're in for a big conversation about gender and pay in the executive suites, particularly media ones. The New Yorker's Ken Auletta reports that not only did Abramson find out she was given less in pay and benefits than Bill Keller in two jobs where she replaced him, but she even made less than a man who worked below her when she was managing editor. Her inquiry into the disparities, he said, “set…off” top management, making them think she was “pushy.”

Given Auletta's anonymous sourcing, we don’t really know for sure whether her pay grade had anything to do with what happened yesterday. Auletta says that a friend of Abramson’s told him that the pay gap with Keller had already been closed. There also may have been some mitigating circumstances: the difference in pension benefits, for example, may have been because she spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, and the newspaper is not a stranger to financial troubles, which may have contributed to her getting less (although it must be noted that under her watch, the Times’s stock beat the S&P 500). And in a job that entails creativity and vision, it may be harder to compare different employees’ pay than, say, two lawyers billing hours on the same case. 

But this aspect of what happened yesterday will focus the conversation around the limits of how far women can reach without suffering consequences. Abramson would certainly not be the first woman to experience a wage gap even when she made it to the top, and then to suffer repercussions for having the audacity to ask for more money. Certainly some of the gender wage gap is due to the fact that women tend to be in lower paying jobs—they make up nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, for example. But there’s still a gap at the top. The highest-paid female executives at S&P 500 companies still make 18 percent less than their male peers. And even the story of being paid less than an underling isn’t new. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, made $62 million last year, while the company’s COO—who was fired in January—made $96 million for his 15-month tenure. 

There is also a general conception that one of the reasons that women who work full-time year-round make 77 percent of what their male peers rake in because they are more timid about asking for raises. But while they may be less likely to negotiate pay if they aren’t told that it’s part of the hiring process, if it’s made explicit they ask for more than men do. Similarly, female MBA graduates negotiate higher pay at the same rate that male ones do. One analysis of 20,000 companies found that more women than men receive raises—but men still got the bigger sums of money.

The problem is often that they are penalized for asking for more, as it seems Abramson may have been. One study found that both men and women are less likely to want to work with women who ask for raises, but men don’t face those negative consequences. They are just given the raises. Another study found that women face “both social and financial backlash” when they are assertive at work, such as asking for more money in a negotiation. The source of this disparity is likely on the opposite side of the negotiating table: In one study of managers, when they were told they had a limited amount of money to hand out in raises and that they would have to negotiate over it, they started out giving men two-and-a-half times the money that they gave women right out the bat.

Before she even looked into her own pay, Abramson was clearly seen in this negative light. Auletta says top management felt she was “pushy,” while many who worked with her say she was “brusque.” More than a dozen other coworkers told Politico that she is stubborn and difficult to work with, with one saying, “Jill can be impossible.” Men who exhibit these behaviors are usually cast as ambitious, determined, and full of confidence; Abramson had already fallen into the trap of behaving the same way and being painted as a pest. Taking action over a pay disparity may have just exacerbated that dynamic.

Whether or not Abramson fell victim to these biases, journalism—and the New York Times itself—is no stranger to gender disparities. A number of top publications were sued in the 1970s by female employees who were told they could only hold certain jobs and were paid less than the men at the papers, beginning with a suit at Newsweek. The Times itself was also sued. It may seem like distant history, but women writers at Newsweek revisited the issue in 2010 and recounted how they still faced barriers to reaching full equal representation in the newsroom. All but six of the magazine’s 49 cover stories the year before had been written by men, and the masthead was still 61 percent male—down from 75 percent in 1970, but still not parity. Among the country’s 10 most widely circulated newspapers, the Times has the biggest gender gap in its bylines, with 69 percent going to men. Among all of them, men get 63 percent of the stories. When women do get assignments, they are often relegated to the “pink ghetto” of health, lifestyle, and fashion. 

We’ve made progress. Women get more bylines. The wage gap has slowly shrunk. One of the most well respected papers was, up until yesterday, led by a woman. But it may be harder for the women of the Times, or elsewhere, to feel comfortable reaching for the top when they see how precarious it can be.